Microsoft customers who signed up to the free Office Live Small Business service (OLSB) before February of last year will soon have to pay to renew web domains they've acquired through the service.

TheOLSB site advertises itself as offering free website, domain-name and web-hosting services for small businesses. However, Microsoft began charging new customers an annual fee of $14.95(£9) for a web domain  in February 2008, while those who set up domains on Office Live earlier will not be charged.

This is now changing: from 1 October, all Office Live Small Business customers will have to pay for domain renewals.

On its OLSB website, Microsoft explained the change, saying it was to bring the company in line with competitors offering similar services.

Those competitors, according to a Microsoft spokesman, include but aren't limited to domain hosters and similar small-business hosted services like Yahoo Small Business.

"The domain renewal fee you are being asked to pay is the same price that all other customers are currently paying," the company said on the Office Live Small Business website. "We feel that this price is very competitive in the marketplace, especially given that Office Live Small Business will continue to provide several other free services."

Office Live Small Business is web-based service to give small businesses a website as well as providing basic management, worker collaboration, accounting, e-commerce and customer relationship management applications. It currently has more than 2 million users.

The Microsoft spokesman said that while he could not say exactly how many of those users will be affected by the change, the number is only a "small percentage" of total users.